A boat navigates at night next to large icebergs in eastern Greenland in August 2019. | Felipe Dana/AP Photo
President Donald Trump’s far-fetched plan to acquire Greenland proved unsuccessful last year, but a new idea tucked away in the president’s new budget request has a better chance: a consulate in the independent, ice-covered Danish territory.
The administration’s proposal, rolled out last week, would give the State Department $587,000 to build a first permanent consular services outpost in the strategic location in the Arctic Circle.
The funds would “establish a permanent diplomatic presence in Greenland, which was previously notified to Congress,” according to the request.
The drama between Trump and Denmark last summer drew laughter from lawmakers to TV personalities, starting with a Wall Street Journal report on the purchase and ending with Trump canceling a trip to Copenhagen. At the time, some advocates inside the government argued a stronger U.S.-Greenland relationship would help edge out growing Russian and Chinese influence in the region, an argument that’s come into the spotlight again.
Greenland’s premier had declared the region “is not for sale and cannot be sold,” and Trump’s plan collapsed. Now, some administration officials and experts say this time around, Trump’s request to build a consulate is likely to be approved by Congress due to the region’s strategic importance to military capabilities and environmental research.
“It allows us first to represent the Americans who are there and second to have more of a strategic presence,” a State Department official said. “It’s not very expensive. … It’s a start. And it says that we’re at least there and attempting to play.”
The official added Greenland’s allure, namely its high volume of rare earth minerals, makes Congress likely to support the proposal. Those minerals are critical to making electronics, including satellites, fighter jet engines, smartphones and electric cars. “That’s why Russia is interested in it, that’s why China is interested in it, that’s why much of Europe is interested in it,” the official said.
A Republican congressional aide noted greater communication with Denmark helped the Pentagon beat out China in its bid to build airports in Greenland, which could have given Beijing a military foothold.
“I don’t think it’s going to be that controversial. … The way you crowd out China and Russia is you work with the Danes, which is what we did when we successfully blocked that Chinese airport being built in southern Greenland,” the aide said.
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The source did note that the funding for the consulate “seems wasteful given that we should be trying to buy the entire subcontinent. Why build a consulate on what should rightfully be American territory? … That’s like the price of a 1962 three bedroom ranch style home in the D.C. metro area.”
A spokesperson for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who first floated the idea of a permanent consulate in Greenland’s capital in 2017, told POLITICO that a consulate in Nuuk shows the U.S. wants to increase its authority in the territory.
“A consulate will be able to better represent the United States’ interests on the ground and in person, as well as provide for a better understanding of Greenland’s perspectives. With the growing level of interest in the Arctic from around the globe, the best way to demonstrate the United States’ commitment to the region is through a greater physical presence,” Karina Borger said in a statement.
Walter Berbrick, founding director of the Arctic Studies group at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., said a more consistent presence allows the U.S. to engage directly with the government and Greenlanders.
Greenland is “maybe one of the most strategic locations in the world because of its geographic location,” Berbrick said. “Being able to have access to the top of the North Pole and also the [Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom] gap and being directly across from Russia — it’s an important place.”
Sherri Goodman, a senior strategist at the Center for Climate and Security, said that as Greenlanders desire independence, the U.S. will need to get good footing in the area.
“It’s important as Greenland becomes increasingly independent that we embrace it as part of the North American continent and clearly cement it into the Western alliance,” Goodman said.
The odds of an independent Greenland are on the rise, the region’s premier Kim Kielsen told a Norwegian news site last month. “The mandate we have from our people says that we must work towards independence. There should be no doubt that everything we do is part of this preparatory process.”
Greenland’s sole representative to the U.S., which aims to boost relations, praised the move as a way to improve commercial, educational, environmental and trade relations.
Inuuteq Holm Olsen, Greenland’s head of representation, said the U.S. presence is likely to be welcomed by Greenlanders: “It’s going to be a small entity from what I understand, so I don’t see any issues.”
Mead Treadwell, co-chair of the Polar Institute at the Wilson Center and the former lieutenant governor of Alaska, said the move “makes sense” for a number of reasons and that a consulate would be beneficial for Greenland and the U.S.
“We very much depend on the Thule Air Base for radars, for robust missile defense for the United States. … That radar is incredibly important,” said Treadwell, former chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission during the Bush administration. The U.S. military’s ballistic missile early warning system is located there because the shortest route from Europe to North America goes through the Arctic island.
The U.S. also conducts large amounts of research in Greenland’s ice caps on climate change, and has sought to help extract the rare earth minerals that lie under its hills.
“We’ve been assisting Greenland with geological research that may lead to oil and gas … [and] strategic mineral development,” Treadwell added.
“In some ways, the consulate is about enhancing physical presence … As the Coast Guard formula says: presence equals influence,” said Heather Conley, an expert on trans-Atlantic relations and Arctic issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.